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The election when first past the post lost

One part of the result is crystal clear even before polling day: our electoral system no longer functions

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

9 May 2015

9:00 AM

The defence of the Westminster first-past-the-post voting system is that while it’s certainly unfair, it delivers decisive results. A relatively small swing in support from one party to another can deliver the kind of parliamentary majority that ensures fully functioning government. This worked well when British politics was a two-party business, and pretty well when it became a three-party affair. But in this new era of multi-party politics, the Westminster voting system is no longer fit for purpose — as the past few months have demonstrated.

When Britain was asked about changing electoral systems in the referendum for the alternative vote, we stuck with the devil we knew. Understandably: at the time there was reason to believe that coalition might prompt a return to two-party politics, in England at least. But then Ukip established itself as Britain’s third most popular political party, and even after coalition the Lib Dems still have considerably more MPs than they had in 1992 while the Greens are no longer simply a postscript in the election results. The electorate’s political preferences have diversified — a fact that the House of Commons is unable to reflect.

The other problem with first past the post is the way it encourages all parties to concentrate their resources almost exclusively on a handful of swing seats. This longstanding problem has been massively exacerbated by modern polling techniques, which mean that the parties know (or think they know) precisely which seats, and which wards in those seats, could yield the votes they need. The growth of junk mailing computer databases means they also believe they know which voters to target. In this way an election to govern a country of 60 million souls is reduced to a battle for a couple of per cent of the electorate.

In many cases, parties abandon voters completely. One of the more depressing experiences of this campaign has been seeing candidates from near-unwinnable seats abandon their home turf to help out in nearby marginals. This is an offence against basic democracy: there may not be many Tories in Labour’s safest seats, or vice versa, but those who do exist deserve a candidate who is campaigning every day in their own constituency, not someone else’s. This trend is no fault of the candidates who are going walkabout: they are only obeying orders from party HQ, often with a very heavy heart. All this contributes to the narrowing of our politics as the parties lower their ambition and abandon seats that they can’t realistically win; the Liberal Democrats have only really contested about 10 per cent of seats in this election. As a result, parties pass up the chance to sow the seeds of a recovery or reach new voters.

This focus on marginal seats is cynical. But it’s the logical response to the current Westminster voting system: you don’t mean a thing if your seat’s not a swing.

First past the post has much to recommend it. The link between an MP and his or her constituency is valuable: everyone has an MP working for them. It prevents party bosses from having the power that a continental-style PR list system gives them. But I wonder if now it is time to move to a two-round system, such as that used in France. In any constituency where no one has received an absolute majority of the votes cast, there is a run-off a week later. This second contest involves only candidates who secured the support of at least an eighth of registered voters.

This would lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of safe seats. Those who were voting tactically (for example, to keep out the nationalist candidate in Scotland) would be operating with far better information than they are today.

The SNP’s dominance of this campaign is a reminder that there is much unfinished business from last year’s Scottish independence referendum. It has long been assumed that the English simply weren’t bothered by the West Lothian question. But in this campaign the Tories have managed to interest English voters, if not in the constitutional niceties of the debate, then in the fairness or lack thereof of the current devolution settlement. As the SNP becomes far stronger and more provocative, English resentment will only grow — and this will become just as much of a threat to the union as Scottish nationalism. This will, in turn, make it that much easier for advocates of Scottish independence to argue that England and Scotland would get along better as separate states.

It always used to be said that the best answer to the West Lothian question was not to ask it. But that position is no longer tenable. Even if the Tories wanted to stop asking it, they couldn’t — politically — stop now. If they did then Ukip would take up the cause — and the votes that go with it. Indeed, Ukip sources privately admit that the Tory focus on the SNP — or ‘ajockalpyse now’ as Boris Johnson called it — has helped them pick up votes in safe Labour seats in the north. Traditional Labour supporters worry about SNP influence but would never vote Tory, so are looking for an alternative party to support. They are now Ukip’s target voters.

The extraordinary surge in support for the SNP north of the border shows that the constitutional question is not going away in Scotland. Fortunately, there is an answer that deals with both the Scottish question and the West Lothian one: federalism. The best way to preserve the union now is to move to a system where there is full financial autonomy — the Scottish Parliament should be in charge of raising all the money that is spent in Scotland. And meanwhile, let only the English decide English laws. Without such reforms, it is depressingly hard to see how it can survive for another generation.

When David Cameron agreed to a coalition five years ago he explained to his colleagues that only from government could they shift some of the negative perceptions about their party. It’s safe to say that this strategy has not been a resounding success. In part, that is because deficit reduction has had to take precedence over social reform — but as the election demonstrated, the party’s appeal remains far too narrow. The mission, now, is to find a way to craft a Conservatism that can appeal to 40 per cent or more of voters.

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